Oct. 19, 2012
By Brian Rice
One statement changed the course of Jamal Lewis' career at the University of Tennessee. That same statement set the tone for a career that saw championships, records and milestones, and a style of play that became his calling card.
Lewis and his teammates from the 1997 Southeastern Conference Champion Volunteer football team will be honored prior to Saturday's Tennessee-Alabama football game, while their head coach, Phillip Fulmer, will be honored ahead of his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Lewis entered the Tennessee program at what may have been the peak of its late-90s talent. But with Jay Graham having moved on to the NFL, Lewis and fellow freshmen running backs Travis Henry and Travis Stephens battled for playing time in their first years on campus. Two weeks into the season, Lewis heard the words that changed his career.
"Coach (David) Cutcliffe approached me about two weeks before my first start and said `You know, Jamal, you'll never play for me,'" Lewis recalled of the conversation with the Vols' then-offensive coordinator. "I asked why and he said `You're not a good practice player.' I told him that I was a gamer; I get in the game and make things happen. He said `Watch #16 when he's in there and you'll see what I'm talking about.' It changed my whole demeanor in how I practiced and how I worked. It changed everything about how I prepared myself."
The words hit close to home for Lewis, but watching #16, the quarterback that had passed on NFL millions for another shot at a title, gave him a visible example to follow. And he embraced what he saw. "For Peyton (Manning), every single play in practice was like he was in the game," Lewis remembered. "After that, I started doing the same, going hard every single play, making sure I was doing everything the same way as I would in the game. Next thing you know, I'm getting my chance to start against Ole Miss and it went from there."
Lewis made his first start at home against Ole Miss, running for 155 yards on 22 carries and a touchdown. A week later against his home state team, Lewis exploded for 232 yards on 22 carries in a 38-13 win over Georgia. The timing of Lewis' arrival in the starting lineup had been foreshadowed by a meeting with Manning during fall camp.
"I was in my room during two-a-day practices when someone knocks on my door and I see that it's Peyton," Lewis said, figuring that Manning was knocking to play one of his trademark camp pranks. "I opened the door and he comes in with 4 or 5 sheets of paper. He says in order to play I needed to know how to protect him. He said `I wrote down all of these protections, and if you learn these protections, then I promise you'll be starting by the fourth game of the season.' I took it all in and next thing you know, I get my chance."
And he made the most of his chance. Lewis was name a Freshman All-American in a season where he carried the ball 232 times for 1,634 yards and seven touchdowns. He also had 23 receptions for 266 yards and two more scores.
The crowning achievement for Lewis in his freshman season was a trip home to Atlanta for the SEC Championship game against Auburn.
"That was awesome," Lewis said. "It was great to come back and play in my hometown, in the Georgia Dome, for the school I decided to play for outside of the state of Georgia. To be able to come back and play in front of my home fans, that was just a great feeling and a great way to send Peyton off as well." It took a second-half comeback, but Lewis and the Volunteers gave Manning the SEC Championship that was missing from his resume with a 31-29 win. Lewis carried the ball 31 times for 127 yards en route to the first championship he had won at any level.
A year later the teams met again in the fourth game of the season and Lewis picked up where he had left off in Atlanta. He rushed for 140 yards and the game's only offensive touchdown in a 17-9 win over the Tigers. But Lewis limped off the field that day with an ACL injury that would cost him the balance of his sophomore season. The Vols went on to win the inaugural BCS National Championship, though Lewis says he didn't feel like a mere spectator during Tennessee's run.
"I played a big part of the four big games that I played in," Lewis said. "Staring the season, the offense was on the running game's shoulders. Those four games to start gave Tee the confidence to go in and be the leader that he was to take us to the championship. Having Travis Henry and Travis Stephens in the backfield the rest of the season helped as well."
Following the 1999 season, Lewis left Tennessee and was the fifth overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft by the Baltimore Ravens. As a rookie, Lewis rushed for 103 yards and a touchdown as the starting running back for the Ravens in Super Bowl XXXV, becoming just the second rookie in league history to rush for 100+ yards in the Super Bowl.
In 2003, Lewis became the fifth player in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards in a season with 2,066, just 39 yards short of Eric Dickerson's single-season record. In Week 2 of that year, Lewis rushed for a then-NFL record 295 yards against the Cleveland Browns. He was named NFL Offensive Player of the Year for his accomplishments, which also included 14 touchdowns, a franchise record that still stands today.
Lewis is the franchise's all-time leading rusher with 7,801 yards and also holds the career record for rushing touchdowns with 45. He was inducted into the Ravens' Ring of Honor earlier this year.
"Winning a Super Bowl my first year kind of spoiled me a little bit," Lewis said. "But it showed me what it was all about. I took that first season and it paved the way for the rest of my career because I always worked for that. It was always about maximum effort and sacrifice for the team."
Lewis said the first year in Baltimore set the tone for his NFL career, but the advice from Cutcliffe still stuck with him, even with NFL success.
"That's something that I'm proud of, something that I cherish and something that made my career, that I was known as the hardest worker out there. That's how I lived and that was the outlook on my career and that's where it started."